Student Debt from Two Perspectives: Interviews with Ken Ilgunas and Sophie Lasoff

A group of people protest economic inequality

As U.S. college prices rise at a rate disproportionate to inflation, the country’s growing educational debt has incited a nationwide discussion. From Occupy Wall Street to memoirs to presidential campaigns, student debt is seriously being critiqued at many levels of U.S. society. Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels (2013), spoke to UDL about his attempt to get out of debt as fast as possible by living thriftily in a van. Sophie Lasoff, current Gallatin senior and activist, also discussed with UDL the state of the current student debt movement on the NYU campus as well as her efforts in organizing the Gallatin Student Debt Series. These two interviews delve deeper into the reality of student debt today and the policy changes needed to remedy this issue.

Ken Ilgunas, Author of Walden on Wheels

UDL: Student debt is a central issue in the upcoming presidential election as well a current concern for many students at NYU.  How do you think the US government should be addressing this issue in regards to financial aid, student loans, the inflation of college prices, and governmental policies?

KI: Far more seriously. We go to college to better ourselves and better society and it’s tragic and unjust that we have to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt for the betterment of ourselves and the betterment of society. I think tuition should be made far more affordable and interest loans should be far more reduced.

UDL: You express the need for a rerouting of ideals in Walden on Wheels that centers around more meaningful and fulfilling pursuits. Do you think the current generation is thinking more critically about our blind consumerism in the wake of the recession or, as the economy bounces back, are we falling back into the same patterns?

KI: It’s tough for me to make that assessment, but there’s definitely a collective critique going on. There’s the tiny house movement that’s going on and I find that really encouraging to question how things are and experiment with ways of living, ways of affording tuition, and traveling.

UDL: You discuss how scary it is to leave the “daily drudgery of work.” Can you expand on how people can try to transgress this daunting boundary?

KI: The only way is to lower your expenses. It probably wouldn’t work in New York City and you’d have to go to more far-flung places where that economic situation of a grueling 9-5 schedule is no longer required. For example I lived in Stokes County in rural North Carolina after Duke and last year I lived in Benedict, Nebraska. It was necessary for me to find the cheapest place to live.

UDL: You also discuss the relationship between frugality and freedom and when you lower your expenses you have more freedom. Most people associate financial freedom with personal freedom so can you expand more on that?

KI: I don’t think of freedom as an abstract concept. Freedom very much is tied to our personal finance and economics. If you have a mortgage, car bills, or student debt you’re probably not free. You’re not free to pick the kind of job you want. You probably will have to resort to a more corporate minded job instead of something socially beneficial and idealistic. You’re not going to have the freedom to travel months on end or you may have to start a family and find someone to help you shoulder this gigantic debt. So personal finance and freedom are inextricably linked.

Sophie Lasoff, NYU-Gallatin Senior and Co-Organizer of the Student Debt Series

UDL: Can you briefly explain how you first got involved with student debt activism?

SL: I had been doing other types of activism for a long time, but I hadn’t worked specifically around student debt. I went to the coffeehouse that Kim DaCosta held last fall and my good friend Lucy was speaking on the panel as an NYU dropout.  She spoke about her experience with student debt.  I went there to see her, but then was introduced to Kim,who approached me to see if I wanted to work on the series with her. Then she and I had a couple meetings and started to brainstorm on what we wanted the series to look like and we developed it over the course of that spring. At the same time we did an independent study together on student debt so that really deepened my understanding of the issue and helped me do a better job running the series and relating to what the pertinent topics were.

UDL: How has your experience at NYU, one of the most expensive universities in the country, helped you understand the effects of student debt or humanized the struggle?

SL: For me personally I don’t think I would have ever gotten as passionate about the issue as I have if it wasn’t for my own personal struggle at NYU.I think that when Kim approached me, it was my first opportunity to work on something that I had been struggling on my own with for three and a half years. It was nice to work on something that was addressing my personal experience in a bigger picture way. I think NYU is really the belly of the beast for student debt and you will find some of the most depressing and heartbreaking stories here about people’s finances and their struggles with debt.That is still underground in a lot of ways and needs to be brought to the surface. The student debt stories initiative that SLAM (Student Labor Action Movement) did allows people to come out of the closet about it and get rid of some of that shame. Otherwise the problem is very individualized and doesn’t have any collective solutions. I think there’s been a lot of work to recover [those stories] and it’s really hard because the people who are most effective have the least time to work on it because they’re working three jobs or have dropped out or transferred. So it’s hard for the people who are most affected to be working on the issue, which I think is always important when you’re participating in activism. If it’s not driven by the people who are most affected it’s not quite as committed and honest as it could be.

UDL: Are we at a turning point for student debt activism with campaigns like the Million Student March and the Fight for Fifteen? Do campaigns like Bernie Sanders’s adequately address the issues of student debt?

SL: That’s one thing: the crisis has gotten so bad that we have to talk about it and the balloon is sort of bursting. There has been a lot of movement and a lot of momentum on this issue particularly political and activist movement. That makes me hopeful. I feel like we’re really ripe for something to happen and I think if done right it would be very easy for a student movement around debt to gain a lot of traction. It affects so many people and it’s an easy constituency to rally because students are so enthusiastic, young, and excited about fighting for a cause. I’m inspired by the student protests that have happened in Quebec and the student protests that are currently happening in South Africa, so hopefully it’s just a matter of time before something like that happens here.

UDL: What did you learn from organizing the student debt series or what do you hope others took away from these talks?

SL: I have learned a lot not just from the work of doing the project, but the people we’ve brought in have taught me so much. As a student who struggles with debt, I’ve learned basic financial skills that I think will be very important. Other students who have come to the financial workshops have been very appreciative of that knowledge and those skills. That’s something that’s just not provided to us at any stage of our lives in school. Unless you have parents that make sure you’re financially literate, you’re not going to know about debt, credit cards, and banks. It’s a crazy system and if you don’t know what you’re doing you’re going to get manipulated and shoved to the bottom of the ladder. That’s been a big part of what the series has tried to do is address the immediate needs of people, specifically around finances and debt, so I hope that people have gotten a lot out of those types of workshops because I definitely have.

Another component is taking a more critical look at the system and encouraging people to think about how this isn’t just an individual problem. It is something that individuals struggle with, but it isn’t just an individual problem and it’s something that we all collectively are affected by whether or not we’re in debt.

We had a panel last semester on the history and culture of debt. Hearing about where all of this came from politically, what bills were signed into law, and how the financial aid packages were created was really enlightening. I think it’s important to revisit and reconstruct that history for people because I think it helps you realize that this is not how it has to be. I think that really opens up a space for people to think about the possibility of what could be and that it doesn’t have to be this way and we can change things.

UDL: What strategies do you think we should be moving towards?

SL: I think there are a whole host of different strategies and different theories of change. A lot of the stuff that has gone through Congress in recent years that’s supposed to be progressive around helping relieve the burden of student loans isn’t necessarily getting at the root causes of the problem. It’s important to reduce interest rates and have more access, but often more access to student loans just means more loans. Incremental reforms can only go so far and more radical actions, like relieving student debt, are not off the table. I think there is just cause for taking drastic action to relieve a situation that has been caused on the backs of average working class people who are going to be paying off these debts for the rest of their lives.
In terms of free higher education, I was really inspired by our last panel and hearing the vision of these organizations and these activists who are trying to establish a system of free higher education in the U.S. Most other developed countries in this world have free or very cheap systems of higher education. I don’t think its impossible to fund; the conversation that we had in the panel around how we could fund these initiatives was really enlightening and according to the facts we were looking at it was totally doable.

UDL: Have any of the stigmas around student debt fallen away since your start at NYU?

SL: I haven’t noticed a shift, at least not at NYU. There’s been a shift at NYU generally about being critical of the administration and I think that has some to do with the exorbitant tuition we have and how things keep rising every year. I think it also has to do with the Abu Dhabi labor violations and the expansion plan. I think that sort of led a larger mass of people to be critical of NYU as an institution so I have seen that shift because that was not the case when I first entered. That’s good to see and hopefully that leads to some institutional changes and shifts.

UDL:  Do you have any advice for activists and organizers starting out at NYU?

SL: I think that we’re on the brink of it more than we realize and social changes in society happen very quickly sometimes, but it needs that momentum and we’re not at a point where we have that momentum at least not here at NYU. I don’t think we’re at a place of momentum in the country either, but we’re getting there and all the signs point towards it. Hyper-local here at Gallatin we’re going to start, in conjunction with the series, The Gallatin Student Debt Collective. We’re going to gather students and faculty who are interested in assessing what needs and priorities the students have and using that information to shape the series and develop any projects as we see fit. We want to open up the conversation and see where others want it to go.

UDL: Thank you Sophie! The Gallatin Student Collective will have a general interest meeting December 11th at 2:00 pm in the 5th Floor Gallatin Student Lounge.